the seeger buckley problem


The eighty-nine-year-old musician and activist Pete Seeger, who is largely responsible for connecting folk music to the American left, joined the Communist Party in his twenties. Seeger has been candid, if at times self-serving, about his early support for Stalin, but the recent PBS “American Masters” documentary on Seeger is so disingenuous, when it comes to his and the Party’s activities, that it gives an impression of 1930s communism as a program for nothing more than peace, equality, and down-home music. The young Seeger comes across as a cheerleader not for Stalin’s Russia, but only for the sorts of social reforms any progressive might advance today.

Equally misleading in its portrayal of an unsettling early position has been press coverage of the career of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died in February. Buckley made his name by providing intellectual leadership to those who did much, in the 1940s and ’50s, to punish Seeger, other former Party members, fellow-traveling liberals, and certain bystanders. Appreciations of Buckley’s contribution to conservatism blur not his embrace of McCarthyism—some of his admirers remain fairly proud of that—but his support for white Southern efforts to prevent black citizens from voting.

Buckley and Seeger share, along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds, a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.

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